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DC Council Votes to Raise the Voices of Everyday People in Politics

February 7, 2018 | Adam Smith

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The Washington, D.C., City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to pass legislation that will reduce the power of big donors in city politics and give everyday people a bigger voice. The DC Fair Elections Act creates a matching-fund program for city elections so candidates can rely on the strength of their community support to fund campaigns, not lobbyists or big developers.

The bill now heads to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s desk. If you’re a DC resident, email Mayor Bowser and ask her to support and sign the bill >>

This is a big step forward for an inclusive democracy in the District of Columbia. Matching small donations and limiting large contributions will incentivize candidates to spend more time talking with their constituents and less time dialing for dollars. By breaking the link between personal connection to wealth and the ability to run for office, candidates who are more reflective of the city’s diversity will be able to run competitive campaigns.

Here’s how the bill works:

  • Only candidates who show broad community support can qualify to participate in the program. For example, a candidate for ward councilmember will have to collect 100 small contributions from 150 city residents to qualify for the program.
  • Candidates who voluntarily agree to participate in the program must agree to only accept small donations, with different limits depending on the office the candidate is seeking. Citywide candidates have slightly higher limits than candidates running in specific wards.
  • Once they’ve met the qualification criteria, candidates receive an initial grant to help fund their campaigns. In addition, the small donations they’ve collected and will continue to collect are matched on a five-to-one basis. So, a $25 donation from a District teacher, for example, would become $150.

Once the bill becomes law, DC will join a growing group of localities that have passed similar reforms in recent years. Last summer, neighboring Howard County, Maryland, passed a matching-fund program for county elections that will go into effect in 2022.

Next door in Montgomery County, Maryland, candidates can have their small donations matched with public funds for the first time this election cycle — and they’re taking advantage of it. Thirty-seven candidates have said they will seek to qualify for the program and, as one candidate said, “you look at the diversity of that pool, more women than have ever run in an election, more people of color.”

In 2017, Seattle piloted its Democracy Vouchers program for the first time with good results. In 2016, the Portland, Oregon, City Council voted to create a matching fund program, and voters in Berkeley, California, approved a similar measure at the ballot. These local programs join states like Maine, Connecticut, Arizona, and New York City that have had successful public financing programs for years.

In supporting the DC legislation, Councilmember Trayon White said, “DC Fair Elections means the voice of regular people will be amplified and we’ll have representation that’s more reflective of District of Columbia residents.”

We look forward to seeing that change in city politics.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith is Every Voice's communications director.